The Power Transfer Thailand Needs

Challenges ahead.

Photographer: PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

With the passing of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the naming of his son to the throne, the question of when and to whom power would be transferred in Thailand has finally been answered. The real question, however, remains: how to empower the Thai people.

While little can be said about how Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn might rule -- not least because of Draconian laws against insulting the monarch that have been applied liberally of late -- two things seem clear. He will struggle to achieve anything like the near-universal popularity of his father, the only monarch most Thais have ever known. And since the 2014 coup, he appears to have reached an understanding with the military. There’s no reason to think he will challenge the political order that the ruling junta has enshrined in a new constitution, approved by referendum in August.

Even if the military follows through on its promise to hold new elections by the end of 2017, the charter will ensure that the army and unaccountable elites heavily influence any new government. This will only reinforce the top-down nature of Thai politics, in which the bulk of spending (more than 70 percent, according to the World Bank) is devoted to Bangkok and surrounding provinces, and political power is heavily centralized. The system will almost certainly perpetuate one of the world’s widest inequality gaps; by one estimate, the richest 0.1 percent of Thais owns nearly half of the nation’s assets.

This is no more sustainable under a new king than it was under the old one, and perhaps even less so. Regional divisions remain stark. Since 2001, the rural populations in Thailand’s north and northeast have supported parties associated with Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister who was ousted in a military coup 10 years ago. Though the constitutional referendum was approved in those areas -- after a campaign in which no dissenting opinions were allowed -- the vote was close and turnout low; resentment stands to grow once it becomes clear that the people's favored politicians have been defenestrated. Anger remains among Muslims in the far south of the country as well, as evidenced by a series of mysterious bomb blasts in August.

A renewed concentration of power can’t be good for Thailand’s economy. The junta has laid out a 20-year plan to achieve a fully developed nation, in part by tapping high-tech growth engines such as biotechnology, robotics and the internet of things. This well-meaning scheme will remain a fantasy, however, unless the government overhauls the education system and invests more in schools and skills programs in underserved parts of the country. Meanwhile, the rural economy continues to contract, and private demand is stagnating. The government talks of spending more than $50 billion on long-term infrastructure projects, but unless fiscal spending is distributed more equitably, consumption will continue to lag.

Nor is the junta’s new system likely to produce the “harmony” the generals have repeatedly promised. The only realistic means of addressing local demands is to devolve more authority to the provinces and villages. The best way to prevent corruption and keep elected politicians in check is through greater transparency and stronger, more independent institutions. Above all, rather than weaken major political parties in hopes of fostering weak coalition governments, Thai leaders should encourage the growth of a viable democratic opposition that’s accountable to voters.

The new king has the power to nudge things in the right direction. Loosening the lese majeste laws would create room for greater political debate in the country. He could press the military to go ahead with elections, then encourage elected representatives to map out a route back to a more open system. The alternative is obvious: a reign that will begin as turbulently as the last one ended.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.